Education Policy Makers: Simple Solutions to Big Problems?

Once upon a time, before the world woke up to the news of COVID-19 and lockdowns, people had definite plans. At least many working adults had plans. Wake up, prepare for work, drop the kids to school, go to work, et cetera. Even kids had a routine! Then COVID-19 happened! Everything changed. Suddenly, the plans were made for us. We were all at a standstill. So many uncertainties – businesses closed, jobs lost, schools closed, and most importantly and sadly, lives were lost! The effects of the pandemic changed the world, and life as we knew it, will probably never be the same again.

In Uganda, just like everywhere else, the disruptions have caused many economic, social, health, and psychological disruptions – mostly in a negative way. We are yet to see, read or hear about the extent of the damage at world, country, family and individual levels. Schools, parents and learners are still held in suspense regarding the fate of their 2020 studies. Some candidates scramble to read in whatever ways they can so that final examinations don’t catch them off-guard. Some have given up and think it pointless reading for two years (assuming 2020 is declared a dead year).

While international schools in Uganda were guided to continue with online learning, national schools were reprimanded for getting creative. Those that established online classrooms were warned to stop charging parents – which came as a surprise since lessons – whether carried out online or in the four walls, are carefully prepared by teachers, taught, checked and learners given feedback, just as they would in the in-person classes. The national schools still remain in a state of confusion because they don’t have clear guidelines from the Ministry of Education. Nevertheless, some schools found creative ways of engaging their learners.

Through personal experience and research, I know that online learning can be as effective as physical classrooms. This does not undermine physical classrooms in any way, as some learners are not cut out for online learning. There will always be some exceptions – some learners who may need physical classrooms due to reasons such as attention span, special and health needs; and others like affordability of gadgets, data, network challenges, supervision and many more. However, if we are to learn from those that have chosen to continue with online learning, the questions should not be “how to stop online learning”. It should be, “how to effectively achieve learning through online platforms” while schools are still closed. Once we have made this decision as a country, the next question would be; “how do we achieve equity?” How can we assist schools bite this seemingly large elephant and cut it down to size? How much funding would it take to do so? How bad is the problem? How else could it be done if we can’t continue online? Radio? TV? Printed material? How can we organize local communities to access learning through social distancing? Could we teach three times a week at the local community centres and have learners take turns? Could we take on parents as volunteer “teachers”, train them and send them to their communities? Whichever way, I believe we could continue teaching if we put our heads together and improve as we continue along the way. But a decision ought to be taken!

These kinds of decisions, especially in unknown territories need to be taken with consultations from all stakeholders – the policymakers, ministry officials, school owners, teachers, parents and learners. Education is a joint effort where all those players have a stake in the future of their lives. Teachers are going without salaries, yet they could have continued earning from conducting online or social-distance community classes.

My point is – there are options. But right now, schools, learners, parents are really agitated and do not know what to do. They don’t know whether to continue with online classes, or radio, TV classes. They don’t know what is going on and are not getting information from our Ministry. While candidates still hang in balance, not knowing if 2020 will be declared a dead year, in my humble way, I’d like to suggest some ideas and hopefully, as concerned citizens we could ponder and build on them.

  1. Instead of declaring a dead year, the Uganda National Curriculum Development Centre could appoint a team of able consultants to reduce, or completely remove Term 2 and 3 content from all school syllabuses to avoid panic teaching when schools re-open. This way, the ground would be well levelled for the learners who did not have the opportunity to continue studying during the lockdown. I honestly do not think students would miss out a lot if all that content was removed from this year’s syllabus. If this material is very relevant, it could be spread out in the subsequent terms/years. Truth be told, much of what we teach in school needs to be re-visited to determine its relevance to this fast-changing world. These are not normal times, and we should not expect things to remain as such.
  1. How about scraping final examinations for 2020 – just like international schools did? This would be a great opportunity to re-think why we hold those examinations that have caused a lot of havoc in the country. Maybe it’s high time we considered continuous assessments as an option so that candidates are not assessed and judged by results from their final examinations, but by how they have continuously performed overall – academically, socially, physically, emotionally, intellectually. If the policymakers chose to cut out final exams, they could task schools to carry out pre-entry exams/tests at school level to determine the students to admit for the subsequent classes. If carried out well and in an organized manner, it could be a simple solution to the big problem that lies before the candidates, parents and schools right now.
  1. Alternatively, we could go ahead with conducting final examinations for P.7, S.4 and S.6. The examinations could focus on the work that was previously covered in all classes pre-COVID-19 so that Term 1 and 2 content is not examined. These candidates have had several years of school and are in position to continue with their lives if they did not cover those two terms. Then everybody would relax and wait for the schools to re-open whenever the government feels ready, and learners would not have to repeat a year of school.
  1. We could also take the long shot. The government of Uganda could either intervene with a new policy on data charges, or it could subsidize for the country through negotiations with data service providers. Uganda’s tariffs and charges from internet data providers are still so high that even the middle- and high-income earners feel the pinch in their pockets. If data was made affordable, more Ugandans would access the internet, and therefore, access more educational resources, especially during the schools’ lockdown period. If you think this is impossible, just look back to where we started with Celtel in the 90’s and how far we’ve come now. If the same formula was applied and data charges reduced, the number of Ugandans accessing the internet is likely to exponentially grow, just like it did with airtime users.

Whatever the Ministry decides, I think it’s time we re-evaluated our education system, which is hinged very much on time-consuming content that is no longer necessary. The way we teach has been disrupted worldwide and, in some countries, things will never be the same again. It’s time we started thinking more about skilling our learners for the 21st-century readiness, than preparing them to pass examinations. No plan is challenge-proof, but I believe in progress through continuous learning.

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Written by Jane Frances Nakato (0)

Jane Frances Nakato is the Director, KinderKare Schools, Uganda and holds a Doctoral Degree in Education with the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, USA.

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